The 2018 elections brought historic wins for Democrats nationally, as they seized control of the House of Representatives. But in Pennsylvania, Democrats saw more modest gains at the state legislative level, where their challenge is a tale summed up by two Senate districts.
In Pittsburgh’s 42nd District, incumbent Wayne Fontana rolled to an easy re-election win, with more than 86,000 votes and no opposition. Just across town, meanwhile, fellow Democrat Lindsey Williams barely eked out a one-percentage-point win in a district that combined a small enclave of Pittsburgh voters with a mostly suburban district friendlier to the GOP.
Taken together, the races show why Democrats got more than half of the votes cast statewide this year, but will be a minority in both the state House and the Senate. And why voters in many areas had no choice at all.
Williams’ race would have been notable even if she lost – just because it was close. The vast majority of this year’s state Senate races were either statistical blow-outs – where the margin of victory was more than 10 percentage points -- or contests where the winner had no major-party opposition.
Things were even more lopsided on the House side. There were more than 200 seats up for grabs, but more than one-third of seats were won by someone who faced no major-party opponent.
When it comes to such races, “I would say that Pennsylvania is among the worst states in its partisanship,” said William Adler, a computational research specialist at Princeton University’s Gerrymandering Project. Adler says uncontested races aren't surprising in states that are dominated by one party. But Pennsylvania is much more evenly divided.
“If you look at more competitive states like Pennsylvania, which is about a 50-50 split, Pennsylvania ranks pretty high lately in terms of how many seats go uncontested,” said Adler. “And it’s been increasing over the decades.”
According to numbers Adler has crunched, during the 1970s and early 1980s, it was unusual for one in four legislative races to be uncontested in a Pennsylvania election. This decade, the number has gone over 50 percent. The 2018 elections bucked that trend to some extent, thanks in part to fired-up Democrats challenging Republicans in suburban areas. But with nearly 40 percent of races uncontested, Pennsylvania still had a higher rate of uncontested seats than states like Ohio or Michigan.
Carol Kuniholm, who co-chairs the group FairDistricts PA, blames the decline in competitiveness on gerrymandering -- the drawing of political districts to weaken a rival party.
“When you see a lot of elections without competition, you know you have a gerrymandered map. People have been pushed into districts of one party or the other."
Twice as many Democrats as Republicans ran without a major-party challenger. That makes life easy for the candidates, but it's bad for their party. After all, Democrats will be a minority in the House and the Senate -- even though Dems got 54 percent of all the votes cast in state legislative races this year.
One problem for Democrats is their voters cluster in urban areas, which makes lumping them together easy. That produced very boring wins for Wayne Fontana and other urban Democrats in Pittsburgh. Lindsey Williams had a more exciting night. Her district mostly lies in GOP-friendly North Hills suburbs, but includes a modest chunk of Pittsburgh's East End. Those city voters delivered huge margins for her – enough to lift her over Republican Jeremy Shaffer.
But Kunihom says the legislative map is drawn to avoid that kind of result wherever possible.
"The fact that there are far more Democrats in [uncontested] districts than Republicans suggests that the Democrats have been packed in very tightly to minimize their impact in other districts," she said.
Democrats did make gains in both houses this November. But Kuniholm notes they were far more modest than those Democrats enjoyed in Congressional races. There, a new map mandated by the state Supreme Court earlier this year produced wins for nine Democrats and nine Republicans – a reversal of the GOP’s previous edge of 13 to 5.
“I think this election showed that maps matter,” said Kuniholm. The new Congressional districts produced an evenly split delegation – four of whose members are women. “But at the state level, despite all this interest, voters in over one-third of races didn’t have a choice.”
State legislative districts are drawn after each Census, by a commission picked by leaders in both parties. A tie-breaking member is typically added by the state Supreme Court -- which was in Republican hands last time.
The court is now mostly Democratic. And Republican state Senator Jake Corman says he favors overhauling the map-making process. He says that’s less about who happens to be holding the reins in a given cycle than about having a representative and responsive legislature. When districts exclude voters of one party, he says, elected officials tend to focus on appeasing the hardliners in the other.
"As a majority leader, my job is to get votes. and it's a lot easier to get votes from people who are concerned about general elections than just primaries,” Corman said. "At the end of the day you've got to compromise."
Earlier this year, the Senate passed a measure, Senate Bill 22, to have district lines drawn by an independent citizens commission, rather than politicians or their appointees. That’s an approach favored by many reformers. But the bill died in the House.
Corman said the Senate would try again, but future prospects are unclear. Last month Gov. Tom Wolf created a commission to study line-drawing. He invited House and Senate Republicans to name two of its fifteen members. Republicans said no thanks.
"We see this commission as an infringement upon our territory, so to speak,” Corman said. “And we will move forward on redistricting reform on our own, as we should. But we don't need a commission to do a job that the legislative branch is perfectly capable of doing."
One of Wolf's commissioners is Wesley Pegden, a Carnegie Mellon University math professor who has studied legislative maps. Pegden is no stranger to election controversies: He testified as an expert witness in the case that overturned Pennsylvania’s federal districts. But he says he's surprised at how passions have ramped up around the issue.
"It was naive of me, but I did not actually anticipate the commission itself -- just the existence of it -- becoming a political football. So I'm not sure what to expect will happen."
Pegden says he hopes the commission will provide advice for how to draw maps more equitably. But as of last week, he’d yet to hear of a first meeting.